Manners and Customs of the Winnebago Indians

The Winnebagoes are distinctly a timber people, and always confined themselves to the larger streams. In early days their wearing apparel consisted commonly of a breechclout, moccasins, leggings, and robes of dressed skins. The advent among them of the whites enabled them to add blankets, cloths, and ornaments to their scanty wardrobes.

Jonathan Emerson Fletcher, the Indian agent at the Turkey river, furnished Mr. Henry R. Schoolcraft, LL. D., at one time Indian agent for Wisconsin Territory and author of “Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States,” a description of the costume of the Winnebagoes, from which the following is condensed 1 : “White blankets are preferred in winter, and colored in the summer. Red is a favorite color among the young, and green with the aged. Calico shirts, cloth leggings, and buckskin moccasins are worn by both sexes. In addition to the above articles, the women wear a broadcloth petticoat, or mantelet, suspended from the hips and extending below the knee.

“Wampum, ear-bobs, rings, bracelets, and bells are the most common ornaments worn by them. Head-dresses ornamented with eagle’s feathers are worn by the warriors on public occasions. The chiefs wear nothing peculiar to designate their office, except it be medals received from the President of the United States.

“Some of the young men and women paint their blankets with a variety of colors and figures. A large majority of the young and middle-aged of both sexes paint their faces when they dress for a dance.

“Old and young women divide their hair from the forehead to the back of the crown, and wear it collected in a roll on the back of the neck, confined with ribbons and bead-strings. The men and boys wear their hair cut similar to the whites, except that they all wear a small quantity on the back of the crown, long and braided, which braids are tied at the end with a ribbon. The men have but little beard which is usually plucked out by tweezers.”

One style of Winnebago wigwam consisted of an arched frame-work of poles firmly set in the ground and lashed together with strips of bark and so arranged as to give it sloping sides and a rounded top. Cross-pieces of wood secured the poles to one another. The roof and sides were covered with pieces of bark, or matting. The general outline was round or elliptical. Conical lodges were employed chiefly in the summer time. Fur robes, matting, and blankets served for bedding. Branches were heaped around the side walls, and on these, covered with blankets, served as a bed.

Mr. Fletcher stated 2 that the lodges at the Turkey river, Iowa, were “from twelve to forty feet in length, and from ten to twenty feet in width, and fifteen feet in height from the ground to the top of the roof. The largest would accommodate three families of ten persons each. They generally have two doors. Fires, one for each family, are made, along the space through the center. The smoke escapes through apertures in the roof. The summer lodge is of lighter materials and is portable.”

Winnebagoes also had, not long ago, a well developed porcupine quill industry.

In common with other tribes the Winnebagoes were accustomed to prepare dried and smoked fish and meat. Nuts, wild fruits, and edible roots of various kinds were also used for food. Corn was raised and such vegetables as squash, pumpkins, beans, potatoes and watermelons. Corn was often eaten green, but usually after it had been dried, ground, and made into bread; it was sometimes boiled with meat. At the Turkey river near Fort Atkinson the Indians cached their corn in holes dug in the ground three or four feet square and about three feet deep. Wild rice was raised and was prepared by being boiled with meat and vegetables. Shelled dried corn, dried hulled fruit, and nuts were cached in storage pits for future use. Tobacco was raised, but only in small quantities. Notwithstanding the abundance of animal and vegetal food that the fields and forest afforded, the Indians suffered occasionally from famine. For wood the limbs of trees were used, but not the trunk; in the neighborhood of Fort Atkinson evidence remains to-day of this practice.

Of the Winnebago marriage customs Moses Paquette, who went (1845) to the Presbyterian school at the Turkey river, stated 3 in 1882: “Presents to the parents of a woman, by either the parents of the man or the man himself, if accepted, usually secure her for a partner. However much the woman may dislike the man, she considers it her bounden duty to go and at least try to live with him. Divorce is easy among them. There are no laws compelling them to live together. Sometimes there are marriages for a specified time, say a few months or a year. When separations occur, the woman usually takes the children with her to the home of her parents. But so long as the union exists, it is deemed to be sacred, and there are few instances of infidelity. Quite a number of the bucks have two wives, who live on apparently equal, free, and easy terms; but although there is no rule about the matter, I never heard of any of the men having more than two wives. With all this ease of divorce, numerous Indian couples remain true to each other for life.” Many of the early traders took Winnebago wives.

The Indians had their favorite pastimes and games, some of which were played by the women and children. There were also several kinds of dances for various occasions.

Regarding their burial customs, the graves were in later times protected by logs, stones, brush, or pickets. With the bodies of the deceased were buried their personal possessions or symbolical objects. With the corpse of a woman were buried her implements of labor. The graves of chiefs and persons of distinction were sometimes enclosed with pickets. Over such a grave it was customary to place a white flag. The blackening of the face by mourners was a common custom. In the winter the remains were encased and placed on a scaffold and then elevated into the branches of a tree, or placed between two trees. In the spring the permanent burial was made in a shallow grave. Over this was erected an A-shaped structure, consisting of two short, forked posts, which, placed one at each end of the grave, supported a cross-piece. Against this frame-work were placed wooden slabs.

Lengthwise the graves at the Turkey river extended from from east to west, in order that the dead might “look towards the happy land” that was supposed to lie somewhere in the direction of the setting sun. The body of the dead was sometimes placed in the grave in a sitting posture, the head and chest extending above the ground. A pipe of tobacco was buried with an adult male, and a war-club was placed in the grave of a warrior. The hieroglyphics painted on the post at the head of a warrior’s grave represented the exploits of those who danced about the grave at his funeral.

Mr. Goddard says: “There were about a dozen or more Indian graves close to the fort, but these have long since been obliterated. An Indian child, about seven or eight years of age, was put above ground in a coffin placed between, and near the top of, four cedar posts set in the ground, and about seven or eight feet high. I was told by the Indians who later traveled through the country quite frequently that the child belonged to a Chippewa woman who was visiting the Winnebagoes. Later, a man who stopped at my place took from inside the heavily beaded blanket, in which the child was wrapped when buried, a round mirror ornament with a loop for suspension, about three inches in diameter, on the back of which was a picture of General Jackson.

“An Indian grave was on the top of a hill in Jackson township, section twenty. The Indians told me that a chief called Black Bear was buried there; however, there is nothing further authentic to prove this. The grave was surrounded by a stockade made of boards split out of logs and was seven feet high; it enclosed a space about seven by eight feet in area. The boards were spiked together.

“Near the Little Turkey river, a fork of the Turkey river, at a point about one and one-half miles from Waucoma in Fayette county, was a farm of about l00 acres broken up (supposedly by the government) and owned by a chief called Whaling Thunder [evidently Whirling Thunder, but not definitely known]. Here Whaling (?) Thunder died, and on his land was a group of about thirty graves, six Indians being buried in one grave.”

Hon. Abraham Jacobson, of Springfield township, stated 4 that, “On the banks of the Upper Iowa river many Indian graves were found. The bodies were buried in a sitting position, with the head sometimes above ground. A forked stick put up like a post at each end of the grave held a ridge pole on which leaned thin boards placed slanting to each side of the grave. Thus each grave presented the appearance of a gable of a small house.”

On Mr. J. I. Tavener’s land in West Decorah are three mounds, or artificial hillocks, now nearly obliterated by cultivation. These mounds are circular in form and, before being worn down by the plow, were low, broad, round- topped cones from two and one-half to three feet high in the center. The largest of the group was about forty feet in diameter. Conical mounds are, as a rule, depositories of the dead. As yet, no bones have been exhumed from any of these mounds, so that it is not known at present what purpose they served; but it seems probable that they were burial mounds.

The early settlers furnished evidence of the existence of many Indian graves throughout the county, notably where the city of Decorah is located. These graves are now almost imperceptible.Citations:

  1. Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 6, No. 3, pg. 121.[]
  2. Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 6, No. 3, pg. 124, condensed from information furnished to H. R. Schoolcraft.[]
  3. Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 6, No. 3, p8. 126.[]
  4. Reminiscences of Pioneer Norwegians,” by Hon. A. Jacobson in “The Illustrated Historical Atlas of Winneshiek County, Iowa, 1905, Sec. II, pg. 12.[]

History, Winnebago,

Hexom, Charles Philip. Indian History of Winneshiek County. Decorah: A. K. Bailey & Don, Inc. 1913.

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